Indigeneity, Hemispherism & the Arts: Workshop Report

Tuesday 18th September 2012. Sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust and the Centre for American Studies at the University of Kent, the Network’s inaugural workshop, on  ‘Indigeneity, Hemispherism, and the Arts,’ took place in the wonderful surroundings of the University of London’s Senate House.

The purpose of the network’s workshops is to generate discussion in relation to topics related to the overarching remit of Culture and the Canada-US border.  This first foray certainly provided discussion in abundance—both in relation to four fantastic presentations, and also to a circulated discussion paper written by network member Kelly Hewson (Mt. Royal University), who could not attend. Over the course of the next few months, that discussion paper and short articles provided by our four speakers will be posted on this blog as a means of keeping those conversations going.

In the meantime, we’d like to acknowledge the generosity and hard work of our speakers, below. Thank you too to all who attended, particularly to guest chairs Maggie Bowers (University of Portsmouth) and Dave Murray (Professor Emeritus, University of Nottingham).

Proceedings began with a talk by Padraig Kirwan (Goldsmiths, University of London) entitled “Sovereign/Power: The Exigencies of Nationalism, Sovereignty and Separatism in Modern America.” Remembering the popular slogan long associated with Mexican labourers in the USA—“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us”—Padraig sought to break down some of the specific questions raised by the literal impositions of the settler-colonial state.

Dwelling on both the meanings and effects of sovereignty and nationalism in a North American context, Padraig turned to scholars such as Taiaiake Alfred, to whom the concept of sovereignty is “inappropriate” as a political objective for Indigenous peoples; to Joanne Barker and the “stench of colonialism” that terms like sovereignty carry; and to Stuart Christie’s notion of “plural sovereignties” to describe the different political, economic, cultural, and legal constituencies in which and through which Native North Americans move. In doing so, he examined the changing nature of sovereignty in related discourses, from the domestic dependent nationhood described by Justice John Marshall in the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia Supreme Court hearing to contemporary articulations of tribal sovereignty in matters as diverse as tribal gaming, land rights, and border-crossing rights.

Delineating a somewhat indeterminate sense of the “now you see it, now you don’t” nature of the process of “negotiated” sovereignty laid the basis for much of the discussion of the remainder of the day. “Negotiated” sovereignity was discussed as a state of affairs in which Indigenous nations necessarily interpret and enact sovereignty differently depending on context, but in which that expression of autonomy has historically been contingent on the US and Canadian governments not simply rescinding those rights.

Following Padraig, Catherine Bates (University of Huddersfield) presented a talk entitled “Thing Theory, Waste Studies and Indigenous Culture in Canada and the US: Can Mutually Productive Connections Be Made?” Beginning with the Cache Creek Landfill, a 48-hectare site in British Columbia, Catherine began a searching rumination on the production and treatment of waste in relation to Indigenous peoples, also taking in Site 41 (the North Simcoe landfill in Ontario) and the Campo Indian Landfill war in California.

Considering the ways in which Native peoples have been figured as waste—“throwaways,” to quote Lee Maracle—Catherine examined questions of sustainability on the one hand and commodification on the other. While the Keep America Beautiful campaign of the early 1970s effectively turned North America’s Indigenous peoples into “America’s conscience” on environmental issues, the reification of Indigenous peoples through the commoditization of cultural stereotypes has ironically contributed much to the wasteful consumer cultures of the West. With particular attention paid to the border-crossing waste in Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water, and Gerald Vizenor’s treatment of a variety of the term’s connotations in Landfill Meditations, as well as the work of visual artist Brian Jungen, Catherine opened up a number of important lines of enquiry, putting waste studies in dialogue with Indigenous cultural production in both cross-border and border-crossing terms.

In “‘What Utopia Feels like’: Hope and its Foreclosure in Indigenous Music”, Dylan Robinson (Royal Holloway, University of London) discussed the role of the arts in Truth and Reconciliation programmes in the USA and Canada. Citing such examples as Mohawk composer Brent Michael Davids’ opera ‘The Purchase of Manhattan’” and the Kronos Quartet’s collaboration with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Dylan described the reconciliatory affect of compositions in the context of Jill Dolan’s notion of the “Utopian performative”: “small but profound moments in which performance calls the attention of the audience in a way that lifts everyone slightly above the present, into a hopeful feeling of what the world might be like if every moment of our lives were as emotionally voluminous, generous, aesthetically striking and intersubjectively intense” (Dolan, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater, 5).

Describing the performative—in the work of Kent Monkman, for instance—as offering seductive hooks though the familiar to address the difficult, Dylan navigated the tricky questions of the limits of the state’s ability to enact redress through cultural performance and the invocation of music’s power in neoliberal contexts.

Turning back to the vexed question of state intervention, and returning explicitly to issues of sovereignty and nationhood as they are articulated at and interrupted by borders, James Mackay (European University Cyprus) focused on “Sovereignty, Lacrosse, and Border Anomalies: the Significance of the Haudenosaunee Passport”. Taking as a catalyst for discussion the high profile of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, James noted that a press release issued on September 11th 2012 to acknowledge that the Haudenosaunee would be hosting the 2015 Men’s Indoor Lacrosse World Championships—the first such championships on Aboriginal land—included the following comment by Gewas Schindler, general manager of the Iroquois Nationals: “This is huge for Indigenous people throughout the world. It’s recognizing our people as a sovereign nation and as a country” (emphasis added).

The fascinating implications of such a claim for the Haudenosaunee, who have never formally accepted the colonizing presence of the US and Canada as independent nation-states, become further nuanced in light of the various acknowledgements of, and refusals to recognize, the Haudenosaunee passport. First issued in its modern form in 1977 and since recognized by countries as far apart as Japan and Finland, others such as Great Britain, Canada, and the USA have controversially rejected it on different occasions in the post-9/11 era. A wide-ranging platform for discussion of the Jay Treaty, the treaty of Ghent, the Indian Citizenship Act (which has been serially repudiated by the Haudenosaunee), and on to Westphalian forms of government and sovereignty, James brought us full circle, back to that necessarily elusive sense of Indigenous sovereignty with which Padraig began.

In May 2013, the network will reconvene in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, where our conference—Straddling Boundaries: Hemispherism, Cultural Identity, and Indigeneity—will be hosted at Algoma University. If you are interested in attending, please follow the link above to our call for papers. Later in 2013 we will meet again at SUNY Buffalo, where the theme of our workshop will be Immigration and Border control. Further workshops in 2013/14 will take place in Paris (Theorising Borders) and Mt. Royal University, Calgary (Aesthetics and Poetics), while our second international conference will take place in summer 2014 at the University of Nottingham, UK, focusing on Cross-Border Cultural Production, Consumption, and Reception. For further information about how you can participate in these events, do please visit our website or follow us on facebook or twitter.

Dr David Stirrup, University of Kent

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